ACTIVIST ARCHITECTURE

 

The movement toward designing truly inclusive spaces.

by Willow Curry

 
 
Photos courtesy of Legacy Community Health •

Photos courtesy of Legacy Community Health •


Walking into Legacy Community Health, a clinic here in Houston, I’m first overwhelmed with colour. Floor to ceiling windows illuminate prismatic stripes that stream down the walls, and Cubist-inspired colour-blocked carpeting covers the floor.

Further into the lobby, a white wall is ornamented with the silhouette of a sprawling live oak tree composed of more strips of colour. These details, combined with the futuristic modular furniture and brushed steel finishes of the medical offices, create a sense that I’m in capable, comforting hands. And apparently, I’m not the only one who feels this way—a few feet from me, a woman is peacefully catnapping on one of the lobby’s many couches.

The exterior encapsulates this feeling, too. Five stunning mural-sculptures, an installation called “Healing Hands” by the celebrated black Houston artist Reginald Adams, swathe the building’s façade.

Murals feature larger-than-life hands with palms outstretched, surrounded by colour fields meant to represent the chakras. Tile mosaic mandalas are at the centre of the palms, circled by ceramic handprints made, I learn from the clinic’s lead architect, by community participants. “Reginald brought them to his studio, and you can see photos of staff cutting out clay outlines of their actual hands and then that clay getting fired,” David McLemore, executive vice president at the Houston & Austin based corporate firm Kirksey Architecture and the lead architect of the building in question, says with enthusiasm and more than a little awe in his voice. “If you ever go up to look at or touch those murals, you would see those hands.”

Even though he’s hundreds of miles away on a lengthy drive to Austin when he describes this to me and at least a year has passed since the clinic first opened, McLemore speaks of the murals with such detail that it feels like I’m at a gallery exhibition, with him as my expert tour guide.

It’s strange, seeing my old neighbourhood in this new way—as something to be admired.

I was born in Houston’s historic Fifth Ward, a 150-year-old community in a city not much older. In the 1950s it was the crown jewel of Black Houston; by the 70s, it was described as “one of Houston’s poorest ghettos.” Even as a child in the 90s and early 2000s I was conscious of the bleakness that pervaded practically every building and street—and as far as healthcare facilities went, I can vividly recall the dim lighting and cracked linoleum floors of my doctor’s office at the neighbourhood clinic and the tightly packed emergency room at the nearby county hospital.

But it’s happening; new, beautiful spaces popping up like flowers bursting one at a time through snow.

Next door to Legacy is Fifth Ward Jam, a bungalow transformed into a vortex of old painted boards that functions as both a piece of public art and a performance space; around the corner, the old DeLuxe Theater where my father watched movies as a kid has been restored from the empty building shell I remember to its original Art Deco glory. Nearby, brownstone-style storefronts with living quarters overhead have been built, the leases subsidized to encourage small businesses. Yet while everything is new, it all seems like it could’ve been there forever. It still feels like home.

This, it turns out, is by design. “You mentioned some of the beautiful historical buildings that are getting restored,” McLemore says after I speak about all the changes. “The community said, ‘Don’t put some big, flashy, shiny metal building that looks like it dropped from outer space, you know, make it feel like it’s a part of the neighborhood.’ So the brickwork that’s on it, it’s a little bit humble, but it’s sturdy, it shows stability. Legacy wanted to make it known that they were there to stay. That’s why those details are there, to make the building part of the community.”

 
It’s strange, seeing my old neighborhood in this new way — as something to be admired.
 
It’s a word that comes up so often in our conversation that I ask if he’s familiar with community-centered, socially-engaged architecture and design. “Only from social circles,” he replies, which speaks to how much the notion of community involvement is becoming a given in contemporary architectural practice. In the world of architecture and design, community is the touchstone for a movement that goes by many names: activist architecture, participatory design, socially-engaged practice. Each name has its own background, but they reflect a common idea: systemic social inequality is designed, planned, and built into all aspects of our lives. Perhaps, then, design and planning might be instrumental, even necessary, in tearing it down.
Illustration by Samantha Nickerson •

Illustration by Samantha Nickerson •

The crisis of the global city is by now common knowledge. Worldwide, densely populated urban areas are plagued with dwindling stocks of housing, skyrocketing costs of living, gentrification, crime, and vast swaths of informal and unsafe infrastructure, from tent cities to slums. However, if you’re like me, you’ve probably heard only about top-down solutions to these problems—changes in policy, making new laws and throwing out old ones, redistributing global wealth. And again, if you’re like me, thinking about the scale of such solutions gives you a headache, a sinking feeling in your stomach, or both.

The activist design movement, while acknowledging these necessary system changes, envisions ground-level interventions, too. The Curry Stone Foundation, one of the most well-known grant-making organizations for global activist design endeavors, produces the podcast Design Insights, and the episode titles are useful in explaining what these interventions might be: “Re-Imagining the Border,” “Gardening as Urban Action,” “Using Design to Bring Down Crime.”

The movement also pushes the design establishment to come out of ivory towers—or in this case, studios—and realize its responsibility to the public. Noting that the American Institute of Architects’ Code of Ethics defines public service only as upholding the law, architect Stephen Vogel argues in an essay for an anthology on activist architecture, “Everyone has to uphold the law. Architects need to be much more proactive in defining and acting on ethical standards and engaging in public service.”

Depending on who you ask, this movement is either the death knell of great architecture and design, or the profession finally realizing its full potential. If one agrees with the prevailing narrative of the role of architects and designers in society, the former might certainly be true. Throughout the history of civilization, the formal practice of designing objects and places has been in service of the religious, political, and economic elite. In a scathing rebuke of a 2014 New York Times op-ed that critiqued architecture’s historic indifference to public opinion, dean of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture Aaron Betsky put it bluntly: “The truth is that architecture is not made by or for a wide spectrum of the population. It is made for those who have the means to commission it.” Individual practitioners, meanwhile, have been endowed with star status from the Renaissance onward—though “starchitect” is a contemporary term, the fact that Michelangelo is still a household name half a millennium after his death proves its timelessness.

And yet, times have changed. The Industrial Revolution brought about an unprecedented human population boom, and by the mid-20th century, global population was growing by a billion approximately every fifteen years. Most of this growth was and is happening in cities. Our planet had nearly three billion human inhabitants in the 1950s when American-Canadian journalist and activist Jane Jacobs started making waves for criticizing the prevailing Modernist architects, who’d been tasked with creating urban developments that would bring order to the new masses, for building structures that didn’t respond to or respect the needs of the city-dwellers who were to inhabit them. In her articles, speeches, and seminal book, Jacobs espoused a then-radical notion: that people who live in cities have at least as much wisdom as city planners and architects about how their cities function, and probably more. Therefore, they should be listened to. “There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city,” she writes in 1958. “People make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.”

Nikia Hill would likely be a woman after Jane Jacobs’s own heart. Like Jacobs, the board president of the U.S.-based Association for Community Design doesn’t have an educational background in formal architecture, urban planning, or design; instead, her B.S. in Forestry & Wildlife, MBA in Strategic Design, and years of experience in community engagement guide her vision and work for the organization.

Also like Jacobs, she sees communities not as chaotic mobs to be organized, but artful systems to be understood—I am reminded of Jacobs’s essay “The Sidewalk Ballet” when Ms. Hill writes in an email to me, “The idea that ecosystems are complex and interconnected in nature and in organizations is transferable to human-centered design.”

I struck up an email exchange with Hill after reading about the association’s 41st annual conference this summer, “Reverberations: Roots and Relevance of Community Design.” I was impressed not only by the wide range of speakers and intriguing subjects, but by the organization’s age. Clearly, design activism was not some new fad of a concept, though it is still treated that way by many quarters of the design establishment. In another essay in the Activist Architecture anthology by Sheri Blake, an architecture professor at the University of Manitoba, I’m astonished to learn that “the concept of community design was born of 1960s civil rights, anti-war and anti-poverty social justice activism.”

Moreover, early community designers were well-aware of the limitations of advocacy design; one of the first community design centres, Architects Renewal Committee in Harlem (ARCH), realized that as outsiders trying to represent the local community, they were blocking community members from organizing and advocating for themselves. As a result, by the end of the 60s ARCH had evolved “from a white organization to a black one,” and “the rhetoric had changed to focus on the issue of self-determination.”

Self-determination, I should point out, was the first point of the Black Panther Party’s Ten-Point Program. The fourth? “Decent housing, fit for the shelter of human beings.”

Hill is a black woman, and she pinpoints her undergraduate years as when she “started to understand that natural resource planning and design had a user profile that didn’t look like me.” Aware of this engineered othering throughout her career, becoming involved in community design gave Hill an opportunity to fight designed exclusion at the helm of an organization that has been rooted in that fight from the very beginning.


When people are better equipped to have informed conversations, to speak up about solutions, advocate for themselves, to demand change and to take action, we move forward.
— NIKIA HILL
However, I cannot help but return to that headache-inducing, heart-sinking concept of all that must be changed in order to fully realize the aims of organizations like Curry Stone Foundation and the Association for Community Design. I look back at the other eight points of the Black Panther Party, addressing poverty, jobs, education, police brutality, criminal justice reform, and an end to war. Is it too optimistic to posit that design can put a significant dent in the problems these systemic issues create?

Just like her forebears, Nikia Hill is not naïve. “These wicked problems that manifest from poverty require interdisciplinary interventions, and design alone can’t solve all of the problems of the world,” she writes. “But we’re not working alone. We’re designing with community members, with government, with organizers and activists, with subject matter experts and folks who don’t fit into any of those boxes. When people are better equipped to have informed conversations, to speak up about solutions, advocate for themselves, to demand change and to take action, we move forward.”

To some, however, this is not and cannot be enough—the systems are just too deeply entrenched.

“There is no such thing as an activist architecture, only activist architects… In short, we should focus less on the limited agency of buildings to make change and more on the agency we have as people. Go to a protest, act in solidarity with the marginalized, find a local grassroots activist formation (there are many) and join it,” writes architect, lecturer, and labor activist Keefer Dunn.

The above is a quote from an article written by architect, lecturer, and labor activist Keefer Dunn. Being one of the first resources that came up when I searched the phrase, I expected to find more work like it. Only later did I realize that his were the words of a rebel against a rebellion, questioning the orthodoxy of the growing design activism movement.

When I speak to Dunn, the co-founder of Pigeon Studios, a small private architecture firm in Chicago, I’m struck by how young his voice sounds. “I’m only 28, so it’s weird to think about having done anything for a decade,” he responds with a laugh in his voice. When I ask him how long he’s been involved in architecture and radical politics, he says it’s been essentially since starting university. His uncommon path is underscored by the story he tells me about the firm’s beginnings: he was only able to start it when he received a large settlement after a bike accident.

 
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From his very first year in architecture school, Dunn, an energetic student activist, noticed a disconnect between the ways social change was being talked about in the classroom and in his grassroots organizing circles. “I was going to all these protests, doing some community organizing, and then going to studio. And in studio, everyone was talking about the social responsibility of architecture, but I didn’t see anyone out in the streets; I didn’t see anyone at the protests.” For all the talk of the power of architecture, Dunn realized, there was little critique of power itself.
Plans that are fitted not to buildings, but to the people in communities who truly make global cities what they are.

Dunn wasn’t the only one picking up on the cognitive dissonance. In 2013, architect and academic Peggy Deamer started the Architecture Lobby, an organization that advocates for reforms within the architecture profession that increase workers’ power—to quote the website’s “About” section, “As long as architecture tolerates abusive practices in the office and the construction site, it cannot insist on its role in and for the public good.”

With its theoretical roots in Marxist thought, a 2017 article from Metropolis magazine describes the Lobby as “a radical caucus to the AIA” and “the Bernie Sanders of architecture.” As a graduate student, Keefer Dunn joined the Lobby in 2014, started its Chicago chapter in 2015, and served as a National Organizer until the summer of 2018. A Marxist himself, Dunn found that the mission and values of the Architecture Lobby aligned with his skepticism that architecture on its own could change systemic inequality. “Buildings don’t change capitalism; workers’ movements do,” he says in our conversation—and his belief is that labor reform and worker solidarity should be at the forefront of movements that seek to address system change.

I find myself thinking back to my neighbourhood, thinking of the positive effect a changing built environment is having on me and many other residents, which leads me to ask Dunn what the harm is in focusing on built interventions when there are so many urgent issues in global urban centres. He pauses for a moment, then responds, “I think most architects would say that the solution to public housing is to draw up a really nice proposal for cheap and beautiful public housing. That makes sense if you think that no one has ever thought of this issue before, but once you realize that it's about power, then you realize that you need to win laws that that fund public housing. A lot of those technocratic approaches are palliative. They’re Band-Aids," he says, echoing the findings of UN reporting. “That’s really at the core of my work—how are we going to win the kind of reforms around housing and affordability that we need beyond that? The obvious answer is through a people’s movement.”

The same day that I speak to Keefer Dunn, I read an article from CityLab about a bill that Massachusetts Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren recently introduced to the Senate floor: the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act. Housing is just one part of the problems plaguing cities, but it is perhaps the most significant, and the article describes the bill as “the most far-reaching assault on housing segregation since the 1968 Fair Housing Act.”

It’s a multi-pronged approach that directs half a trillion dollars from estate tax revenues towards subsidizing development in low/middle income and rural communities, down payment assistance for historically marginalized communities, and competitive block grants that are aimed at making neighbourhoods with greater economic opportunity more affordable. And with a newly Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, it just might have legs. It’s just the sort of national intervention that has been missing.

As much as the legislation excites me, given all that I’ve learned about the global crisis of the city, I still wonder who will be doing these developments, if by a miracle it were to pass. If residents will get a say. If there will be the same attention to integrating into the historic character of communities that David McLemore described with the Legacy project.

Perhaps that is the true strength of activist, participatory design movements. When circumstances are what they currently are, activist and community design organizations step in where cities and nations are falling short and create pockets of hope and change, even if their interventions can’t fix the structural drivers of inequality. And in the best of circumstances, when political will is there and system change is within reach, they ensure an ethic that extends beyond buildings into a respect for the input and wisdom of people who have historically been marginalized by development.

It is, in the end, what Jane Jacobs called for: plans that are fitted not to buildings, but to the people in communities who truly make global cities what they are.

Back home in my Houston neighbourhood, the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation — the organization that has quietly planted and tended each of those now-blooming flowers as consultants and advisors on all the new development, including the Legacy Clinic—has a new project in mind: turning the historic St. Elizabeth Negro Hospital, built by the Archdiocese of Galveston in 1947 in the Art Deco style and now majestic but vacant, into apartment living. On the project’s website, I see a number of focus groups planned for 2019 for members of the community and potential apartment residents to have a say in what the building will become.

Brimming with hope, I hit “REGISTER NOW.”
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Willow Curry is an essayist and journalist based in her hometown of Houston, Texas. Her work, which deals largely with the intertwined identities of individuals and places, has appeared in print in Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, Mosaics: A Collection of Independent Women Vol. 2, and From All Corners: A Nonfiction Anthology as well as online for VocaLady Magazine. You can follow her on Instagram @willathewisp.

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